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communications guardrails

Communications Guardrails: Your Key to Forward-Thinking, Innovative, and Grounded Messages

We recently posted this blog article about strategies for making your underlying messages consistent with how you want your brand to be perceived by the world. With the speed of information dissemination in our digital age, you can’t afford to be reactive. But being proactive is a real challenge too. Anticipating all the ways our messages might be received is a tall order.

However, there is another way to ensure you are shaping conversations, rather than allowing conversations about your firm to be shaped by those outside of your organization. All you have to do is come up with some strong communications guardrails and stick to them. Let’s dig in!

Communications guardrails? What does that mean? 

Communications guardrails are a list of do’s and don’ts that are unique to your organization. They let the world know what your organization does and does not stand for. You can think of guardrails as rules, but that makes them sound really restrictive. 

We prefer to think of your guardrails as well… guardrails. They are boundaries that keep everyone corralled just enough to ensure that the conversations you’re having both inside and outside of your organization are forward-thinking, innovative, and grounded.

Your guardrails will also act as guides as your communications evolve. They include your values, branding messages, and talking points, but we encourage our clients to go even further. To start, ask your team these five questions:

  • What are we actively doing to show our commitment to our purpose, vision, and values?
  • What are our firm’s priorities when it comes to communications?
  • What industry-wide beliefs and best practices do we accept?
  • What industry-wide beliefs and best practices do we reject?
  • Do we have a solid crisis management plan? (because if communications are going to go off the rails, it will happen during a crisis)

With the answers to these questions in mind, you can begin creating your own guardrails. 

Also, you’ll want to consider what has worked for you and your competitors in the past. But don’t forget to look outside of your industry for ideas too. If you want to be out front leading, you’ve got to think beyond those tired, worn patterns.

Finally, avoid the 7 Deadly Sins of Business Communications:

1. Pride: Lack of consideration for or understanding of your audience.

2. Envy: Trying to ‘copy and paste’ another organization’s messaging because it worked for them.

3. Gluttony: Know when enough is enough and skip the buzzwords.

4. Sloth: There are no real marketing “shortcuts” or “hacks.” You’ve got to put in the work.

5. Lust: Beware of falling in love with the latest trends or tools. Keep your communications genuine.

6. Anger: When communications are perceived as angry, defensive, or overly negative, your audience will tune out the message.

7. Greed: It’s okay to make the ask, but make sure you consider carefully who’s winning in the deals you make.

Time to Give Those Communications Guardrails a Stress Test

Once you have come up with your set of guardrails, the next step is to test them. This is yet another reason the guardrail metaphor is apt. Road crews don’t build guardrails and then put them out on the street without doing a proper stress test. 

In the same way, you don’t want to assume that your communications guardrails are solid and test them out in the “wild.” You want to test them internally first. 

One method we use with our clients here is the Murder Board. The term murder board (AKA “red team”) originated with the military, but it’s shorthand for creating a team of rivals or a committee of killjoys whose sole job is to poke holes in your team’s best ideas. It’s great not only for testing communications guardrails, but for any new idea you might come up with.

In short, the murder board is tasked with locating the problems, risks, and bugs insiders might miss. So bring your guardrails in front of a murder board.

Murder Boards are beneficial in a variety of situations related to communication guardrails:

  • When prepping crisis communications, the murder board can hep you prepare for any number of scenarios and develop do’s and don’ts for your CEO and spokespeople.
  • When prepping to talk to investors or analysts, the murder board can role play scenarios with your CEO to ensure she has answers to any number of “tricky” questions.
  • When prepping your sales team or customer service on the frontlines, the murder board can get them ready to reply to customers who can be some of the toughest critics, especially during a crisis.

For high stakes communication situations, there’s nothing better than a murder board. Finding your communications guardrails is a high stakes situation. Without guardrails, you’ll find everyday communications feeling chaotic and overwhelming and crises quickly spinning out of control.

When you take the time to create your communications guardrails with your team, though, you have the opportunity to shape the conversations you’re having and to lead your industry into a brighter future. 

What are your communications guardrails?

At Audacia Strategies, we’re used to fielding questions from executive clients about how they can be more aware of the underlying messages they’re sending. Our go-to answer is let’s work on your guardrails. Ready to see us in action? Contact us to schedule an introductory call!

rebuilding corporate trust

Rebuilding Corporate Trust: 4 Ways Business Leaders Can Bring About Real Change

As we slowly leave the pandemic behind and enter the rebuilding period, let’s not forget our responsibility for rebuilding trust in public institutions. With all the highfalutin talk about rebuilding society and cultural norms coming out of the pandemic, it’s tempting to point the finger at the government, NGO’s, and the media.

But we are at a unique crossroads where business leaders are positioned to bring about real change both inside and outside of their organizations. Want evidence? Look no further than corporate reactions to measures tightening voting accessibility. Just over a week ago, hundreds of companies and executives signed on to a new statement opposing “any discriminatory legislation” that would make it harder for people to vote. 

This type of overtly public engagement has become increasingly common over the past few years as corporate executives step into the trust gap vacated by government organizations. 

Earlier this year, global communications firm, Edelman, released its 2021 Trust Barometer and the results are revealing, especially when it comes to rebuilding public trust:

  • Business has a 61% trust level globally (that’s higher than any other institution)
  • 86% of respondents believe that CEO’s must lead on societal issues
  • 68% say CEO’s should step in when governments fail

We can point the finger at others, or we can embrace this as an opportunity to reshape relationships and build new communication paths providing benefits that will long outlive the current moment. Edelman’s Trust Barometer makes it clear which choice your customers and employees want you to make. So let’s look at the why and how of rebuilding trust.

Rebuilding Corporate Trust in Response to the Epidemic of Misinformation

How did we get here? If you were an alien landing on Earth today, you might expect to find people turning to governments and other long-standing institutions for guidance as we restart the global economy. However, the way governments handled the global health crisis has not engendered confidence in people.

Time Magazine nicknames the findings of the Edelman report the “Epidemic of Misinformation.” In the first half of 2020, public trust of governments did rise. Early on, both U.S. and Chinese citizens deemed the government to be the most fit institution to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. However, by May 2020, China and the U.S. saw significant drops in trust by 18 and 23 points respectively.

To explain these sharp decreases, Richard Edelman points to China’s use of censorship and U.S. officials’ touting of “miraculous cures” that were discredited while simultaneously diminishing the efficacy of mask wearing and social distancing in favor of reopening businesses. Edelman’s recommendation: it’s time to declare information bankruptcy

As trust in governments has diminished, trust in businesses has only grown stronger. Given that trust is the glue that holds society together, especially during trying times, leaders must take the initiative to rebuild corporate trust.

How Our Clients are Rebuilding Corporate Trust

Even before the pandemic, many CEO’s appeared to be heeding this call and stepping into their roles as “America’s new politicians.” In 2019, 181 of the nation’s top CEO’s agreed that “driving shareholder value is no longer their sole business objective.” This is a significant break with the past profit-above-all-else mentality.

And this shift, spearheaded by Business Roundtable Chairman and JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, reflects growing pressure from employees, social media, and customers to do more than increase stock prices. The pandemic and recent political events have only accelerated this shift.

At Audacia Strategies, we’re fortunate to have a front row seat to see this change in action with our clients. Here’s how our clients are stepping up to rebuild corporate trust one organization at a time:

1. Looking deep into the “soul” of the organization

Our clients are looking deep into the “souls” of their organizations to tap into their purpose. They’re asking: Why do we exist beyond profits? And what value do we add?

They’re also recognizing that often rebuilding corporate trust requires reaching out to customers and employees to ask for help. They’re initiating Voice of the Customer and Voice of the Employee studies to really take the pulse of their key stakeholders.

In many cases, though, rebuilding trust is perpetually aspirational. This applies not only to startups, but also to long-tenured companies. As the world changes, how we leave an impact can and must evolve too.

2. Knowing credibility matters

Employers are recognizing this moment for the opportunity to be a credible voice and to provide clear, unambiguous information for employees to follow — whether it relates to corporate strategy, benefits changes, or societal changes.

When organizations look at employees as humans, as opposed to money-making machines, they see beyond increasing productivity, profitability, and financial performance. They see how having empathy for what their employees have experienced in the past 12 months can open doors for the organization.

In the current climate, employees are exhausted from having to parse through health messages online, in their inboxes, on television, and in the media. Misinformation and disinformation have created a void leaving many without an orientation point from which to believe anything at all. Operating in such a gray area is exhausting and demoralizing.

Companies focused on rebuilding trust recognize the chance to fill this void for their employees (and customers) and gain credibility as a result.

3. Believing consistency is king

The quickest way to blow your credibility when it comes to communications is to broadcast inconsistent and sporadic messages. The old 7×7 rule is still a good starting point — but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. 

For our clients, we encourage a message architecture that ties every communication back to the organization’s purpose and vision

Overcommunication is key… but not via an avalanche of emails. Instead, use multiple channels and — most important — use live events whether structured town halls, small group roundtables, regularly scheduled staff meetings, or just chatting before the next Zoom call. All of these are opportunities to reinforce a consistent message. And that leads me to…

4. Proving trust is not a one-way street

Employees must also have a voice and provide feedback in real time.  And although annual engagement surveys can help, these shouldn’t be the only means of listening. Some ideas:

  • Hold open Q&A sessions
  • Use your internal communication tools like Yammer, Slack, or Google Hangouts to solicit and facilitate feedback
  • Share pulse surveys
  • Voice of the Employee (VOE) research 
  • Have an open inbox/phone line/door for receiving and sharing feedback

When your employees feel heard, they trust that you’ll share with them what’s working and what’s not in a constructive way. They trust that you’ll share the questions and suggestions you receive. And they will trust you to create a roadmap forward and share your progress regularly. 

Rebuilding corporate trust is hard work. It’s sticky. It can be emotional and truthfully, it can be exhausting for the leader who often says, “but I’ve said this in the last 5 meetings — let’s move on.” Remember, though, consistency is credibility and credibility is trust. 

As leaders, we don’t have the luxury of passing the buck here. Rebuilding public trust starts with us. If you’re ready to boldly step into this new era of radical transparency and corporate trust, your partners at Audacia are here for you. Contact us to discover how we can work together. 

Photo credit: Group of happy people working together in an office by Flamingo Images from Noun Project

underlying messages

More Than Words: What Underlying Messages Are You Sending?

It’s 2021. And I, for one, cannot remember a time when our words — all of our words — carried more weight or were more carefully scrutinized. It’s no longer an overstatement to say that the Internet has the power to make or break your brand. Welcome to the communications pressure chamber where anything you say has the potential to be found and amplified.

As leaders and communicators, our job is to shape conversations. But with the speed of information dissemination, the time to strategize is before — not after — a narrative is trending online. Anticipating all the facets of how your narrative might be perceived, however, can feel like an impossible task.

It’s no wonder we are hearing from many, if not all, of our executive clients asking how they can be more aware in their communications (look for a post about humanizing communications coming soon!). So let’s talk about strategies for making sure our underlying messages are consistent with how we want to represent our brands to the world.

The Challenge

If you’re a leader worried about the underlying messages you’re sending with your content, you are likely facing one of the following challenges:

  • The fear of saying the wrong thing is paralyzing, so you put out watered-down, over-wrought messages that end up effectively saying…nothing.
  • The fear of saying the wrong thing is paralyzing, so your communications have stopped altogether. But saying nothing at all says so much more.
  • You’re ready to walk the talk and you want to communicate directly, but you fear reputational harm if you “don’t get it 100% right.”

These fears are understandable, but the answer is not to get defensive or hide behind jargon. Former President Barack Obama, speaking at the Obama Foundation summit in 2019, told his audience: 

“The cancel culture is predicated on this idea of purity; the illusion that you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff…You should get over that quickly. The world is messy, there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids. And share certain things with you.” 

Rather than tip-toeing around your communications, maybe it’s time to embrace the messiness and welcome conversations around what our underlying messages are saying both to those within our circles and to those on the outside looking in.

Embracing the Messiness  

Cancel culture aside, this heightened state of awareness creates challenges for leaders and communicators, but we can also choose to see these challenges as opportunities for change. 

I’m in a heightened state of awareness too. Not only am I hyper aware of the words organizations use (including Audacia Strategies!), but also I’m aware of their actions. This past summer, for instance, I received a message from an M&A consultancy announcing its recent merger and its partnership with several large universities to bring on new team members. 

I heard the surface-level message loud and clear: Growth! Scaling! Excitement! 

The problem was with the underlying message. The email included their full new leadership team — with photos. All 9 were white, male, and all appeared to be over the age of 50. And this was the message they chose to use as a recruitment tool directed at new graduates. I was stunned. It felt completely tone-deaf. 

When I opened that email so many questions flooded my mind: 

  • What does this say about the priorities of this firm? 
  • What does this say about the structures of higher education? 
  • What does this say about those completing business valuations? About opportunities to acquire, sell, or engage in M&A processes? And about the finance and banking industry more broadly?

The underlying message being sent—not only by emails like this, but by the lack of equity, inclusivity, and diversity across corporate America—to women and BIPOC is “you are not welcome here.” So what can we as leaders of the business community do to bring about change? Here are some ideas to get you thinking.

1. Take a stand as anti-racist

Now, there’s no doubt that the M&A consultancy was unaware of the underlying message their email was sending. They were firmly focused on the “Growth! Scaling! Excitement!” 

And this is precisely why it’s important for organizations to take an anti-racist stand. It’s not enough to say you’re non-racist or inclusive. The public needs to hear your personal and professional commitment to anti-racist action. Why not make this a regular focus of your content?

Too often when the national narrative gets uncomfortable, corporate leaders go silent, at least until they’ve completed their focus group testing and run it by Legal. As a leader in this moment when the country is engaged in discussions about institutional injustice, it’s essential to state your anti-racism clearly and announce the actions you’re taking to support those words. 

Communicate this in official statements, through updated company policies, and in your daily workplace interactions. Beyond these direct statements, partnering with a communications expert who specializes in diversity, equity, and inclusion can help you become more aware of the subtle non-inclusive messages you may be inadvertently sending.

2. Examine and address systemic racism in your organization.

If your response to my description of the email I received made you bristle, that’s because of systemic racism. Remember, and this is crucial, systemic racism harms all of us. Systemic racism makes members of “dominant groups” blind to their own racism and bias. Being blind to racism and bias makes us write company policies and procedures that are also biased. 

The only way to fight systemic racism is to face it head on:

  • Examine all company policies and procedures
  • Create a committee to examine and weed out or flag problem areas
  • Ask: Are paths to advancement within your organization structured to disenfranchise people of color?
  • Consider what efforts you are making to hire people of color as well as how you’re ensuring these employees thrive
  • Make visible changes to support a truly diverse, inclusive, and anti-racist culture

3. Use your power to change corporate norms.

Leaders have the power to use their resources and privilege to drive change. Perhaps the most important thing you can do is to look beyond what you mean to say and consider how others might interpret your content. Then get to work improving corporate culture.

As leaders, we are uniquely positioned to move the needle on changing social norms. We need to recognize the position we’re in and commit to taking meaningful action. There’s much to be done. There’s much you can do to infuse your company with anti-racist values and create an anti-racist culture.

In this spirit, here’s what we’re doing:

  • We’re actively examining our recruiting, partnering, and networking processes to engage a diverse network of partners.
  • We’re committed to bringing a broader set of values and bigger, more audacious, thinking to clients and to our community.
  • We’re listening, learning, trying and failing, trying and advancing, and pushing ourselves to learn more, get uncomfortable and bring more awareness to our communications and our actions.

Becoming more aware of our communications is about more than rooting out racism, though. We’ve been seeing increasing calls for companies to take a clear stand on environmental issues, for example. So another change you can consider is to make sure you have a clear set of values and that you stick by them.

Ask yourself and your team:

  • Do our messages amplify our company values?
  • What messages do the images we use in advertising send?
  • What social change movement would you like your brand to lead? What are you doing to move the needle?

All of this can feel overwhelming, which is why it’s so important to have a diverse team. Considering perspectives and voices that are different from your own will make you more aware of the underlying messages you’re sending.

I’m not suggesting that I have all the answers or that we at Audacia Strategies have it all figured out. Audacia has a long way to go. I have a long way to go. We aren’t going to get this right the first time and we will make mistakes. 

As CEO, though, I’m committed to taking action to increase true diversity and inclusivity. With this focus, the underlying messages will fall into place. We have to start, fail, learn, and improve. 

So, what are you doing?

Photo credit: Jacob Lund from the Noun Project

bold steps

5 Lessons from 5 Years (and What’s Next)

This month, I’m celebrating five years taking bold steps as the CEO of Audacia Strategies! Anniversary messages tend to be like toddlers…all about “me me me me me!” But the truth is—it’s all about YOU, Audacia Strategies’ clients, partners, and community.

As I take time out to reflect and celebrate at the end of a year like none other, I am overcome with gratitude. Your willingness to listen as we strive to balance your current business needs with the future needs of a transforming organization means we can cover more ground more quickly. Your positive responses to our content gives us the confidence to be leaders in our community. And your support on so many fronts makes it a joy to get up and do what we do every day.

So, as I share five lessons from five years in business, I want you to know we’re always thinking about how the lessons we learn can be applied to your organization as well.

1. Choose Your Name and Brand Identity Carefully

What’s in a name? Well, I won’t say the name of your organization is everything, but a great name can be a good conversation starter. And since we’re all in the messaging business in one way or another, it is a good idea to give names and titles careful thought. 

Why the name Audacia?

Here’s the definition:

From audāx ‎(“bold, daring”), from audeō ‎(“I dare”)

  1. daring, audacity
  2. boldness
  3. provocativeness

I chose the name Audacia Strategies because I never want to forget that spark that started me down the path to building my consulting business. With this name, I knew I’d never forget my big “why.” I knew it would be crystal clear to my team, clients, and partners that we are all about taking bold steps and transformative action. We don’t back down. We aren’t afraid to take risks.

More recently, I’ve purposefully shifted a lot of my language (both internal and external) to talking about my team. As I like to say, “this is not the Katy show.” All of this is part of discovering my brand’s true identity. Have you reflected on your organization’s identity lately?

2. Insist Upon Your Values

I also want to keep our company values on the forefront of everyone’s minds. There’s no mistaking what we stand for and because we know actions speak volumes, we make sure to walk our talk.

When I look at the strides we’ve made as a team, I know what works only works because we have clients who share our values. Trust, transparency, and audacity are the key ingredients to our success. But if any of these were missing on either side of the equation, we know we wouldn’t be where we are today.

When organizations have strong values that their customers recognize, it humanizes those organizations. Make sure that you infuse all of your messaging, both internal and external, with your company values. Could your customers list your organization’s values? 

3. Stay On Top of What’s In/What’s Out

Top organizations stay on top of what’s in and what’s out in their industries. Messaging and corporate communications has evolved a lot over the past five years. Just consider how much attitudes about Facebook and other social media platforms have changed during that time. Remember the carefree days before Cambridge-Analytica?

Here’s what stands out in our industry:

 

In Out
Straight talk Flowery prose
Teamwork “It’s faster if I do it myself”
“Revenue Driver” “Cost of doing business”
Progress Perfection
Getting uncomfortable Playing it safe

 

4. Taking Bold Steps Pays

For the past five years, Audacia Strategies has been in growth mode. I knew from the beginning that to meet my ambitious goals, I needed to set my fear aside and take steps I didn’t feel ready to take. I knew I couldn’t sit back and wait for the planets to align. I had to go out and find great partners so that I was ready to serve big clients. I had to believe that if I made smart investments, the revenues would come in and I’d be able to cover those big moves. In short, I had to trust myself, so my clients would trust my team.

Betting big has paid off big for us. It hasn’t always been a perfectly smooth ride, but that’s the point. Smooth rides mean that you’re covering well-trodden territory and change-makers can’t afford to play it safe. What big, bold steps do you need to take to raise your organization to the next level?

5. Look to the Future

So, what’s next? More of what we do best—rolling up our sleeves and diving into your biggest investments and boldest ideas. We’re bringing more firepower to the game with expanded voice of the stakeholder (customer, employee, community) capability, non-financial due diligence offerings, and more straight-talk-results-focused communication strategy.

What else should we be working on? What do you need most? Where would you like Audacia Strategies to focus its efforts in the coming months and years? We would love to hear your ideas for what’s next and what we should be working on! 

Give us your best ideas in this short (90 seconds) survey and we’ll share the responses in 2021. Fill out the survey here. #accountability

Here’s to all of us for making it through 2020! And here’s to another five years and beyond of bold steps for Audacia Strategies, our clients, partners, and community!

Photo credit: by Jacob Lund from the Noun Project

Corporate Communications

Cut the Crap: Putting the Humanity Back into Corporate Communications

Maybe it’s all the election coverage or the fact that I haven’t been in the same room with anyone outside of my immediate family in almost nine months, but my tolerance for corporate-speak is hitting the floor. And I don’t think it’s just me.

If there ever was a time to get human, it’s now. What does this mean? In the simplest terms, it means cutting to the chase with our corporate communications and messaging. Your audience is clamoring to feel seen and heard. So why not give them what they want?

Take a look at my best tips for putting the humanity back into your corporate communications.

1. Think Like a Reporter

Whether you’re working on a value proposition (i.e., what makes you unique in your market?) or a restructuring message to share with investors, strip away all the complexity and find simple language. 

One way to do this is to think like a reporter. Journalists are trained to give the who, what, where, when, and how of a story in the first sentence or two when reporting on a story. Replicate this tactic by getting your marketing and communications teams together (or go outside of these departments for a different perspective) to brainstorm: 

  • the what, 
  • the why, and 
  • the what’s next.

Whatever you think of James Carville’s politics, he is a master communicator and strategist. During Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, Carville knew exactly how to drill down and develop core messages that were simple, memorable, and meaningful. Carville used his most famous quip, “it’s the economy stupid,” along with “change vs. more of the same” and “don’t forget health care” to anchor messaging throughout the campaign. The election results speak for themselves.

2. Dump the Buzzwords

As one health reporter brilliantly puts the point in this Atlantic article, “if there’s anything corporate America has a knack for, it’s inventing new, positive words that polish up old, negative ones.” These buzzwords do more than whitewash or paper over the stuff we don’t want to talk about, though. They also obscure your message and make your organization seem less authentic.

In this time when everyone is distracted by a global pandemic, an unusual Presidential transition, and how both could affect their future, it’s more important than ever to dump the “disrupting,” the “pivoting,” and the “growth hacking.” 

Your employees and customers don’t have time for this. They want you to give them information they can act on. If you confuse them with jargon or industry terminology, they will ignore you. So cut the crap.

3. Get Vulnerable

What can you do instead of resorting to the safety of buzzwords? Get vulnerable. Be careful here, though, getting the tone right takes a lot of nuanced thinking. And I’m NOT suggesting that you manufacture adversity. But if you’ve faced a genuine struggle that has made you rethink how you do business, it may be the time to share the new ‘why’ behind your ‘what’.  

You can make sure to stay within critical communication guardrails by letting your organization’s authentic voice be your guide:

  1. Pay attention to the voice of your leadership team and use it to steer messaging.
  2. Make sure your corporate communications reflect your company culture.
  3. Take a step back and consider the big picture whenever communicating with the media, your audience, and other stakeholders. 

4. Step Away from the Webinars

In relation to considering the language and the tone of your corporate communications, you’ll also want to think about the method of delivery. I’m not a speaking coach (though I am happy to hand out referrals to great teams), but I find the formality of webinars often results in participants feeling totally disconnected.

For this reason, we have been recommending that clients step away from webinars in favor of less formal interviews, discussions, roundtables, open mic Q&A, etc. While it may make sense to give a short written statement or update to kick off an investor meeting, listening to written remarks being read for any longer than 10-minute intervals is probably too much to ask from those on the other side of the camera.

Regardless of the format, to ensure that you are connecting with your audience, spend some time practicing your delivery. In fact, if you can spare the time, put more time into practicing your delivery than you do writing up your remarks. 

Why? This world of virtual meetings we all inhabit makes it harder to feel a genuine connection. If you’re the kind of speaker who draws on the energy of your audience, then this is even more true for you. Ask these questions as you prepare for your next town hall meeting:

  • Would my grandparent understand what I’m saying?
  • Have I removed all the jargon?
  • Have I included smart visuals that are easy for my audience to understand almost immediately?
  • Do I have a story or narrative to share?

Above all, be mindful of the ways in which your customers, your employees, and your investors are more distracted than they’ve ever been. When your communications cut to the chase and avoid the corporate-speak, your audience will feel seen and heard.

With these tips under your belt, you’ll be ready to send a clear message with your corporate communications. Is it time for your organization to get human? Contact us and let’s talk! 

Photo credit: Transgender woman leading meeting by Noun Project from Noun Project

best communications practices

A New Look at “Chaos is Our Brand” in Light of the Coronavirus Crisis

When Audacia Strategies CEO, Katy Herr, originally taped this interview with Dan Doran, CEO of Quantive, for his podcast The Deal—Unscripted, we had no idea just how relevant it would be now during the current crisis. A year later, we are living a case study in crisis communication and thought it was a good time to revisit some of the takeaways about best communications practices from that conversation.

1. Don’t Wait to Create a Strategy for Best Communications Practices

This recommendation applies as much to a wide-spread crisis situation like the Coronavirus pandemic as it does to a big company transition like a merger or acquisition. It never pays to procrastinate on creating a communications strategy.

If you find yourself without a clear strategy, you’re likely feeling the pain acutely in this moment. As far as we know, no one has invented a time machine, but there are some things you can do to develop a stop gap strategy:

  • Stay calm and present as you weigh your options.
  • Figure out who needs to hear from you, when.
  • Develop straightforward messaging that doesn’t promise more than you can deliver.
  • Make sure you have a designated team with assigned roles to streamline communications.

For more ideas, check out 5 Lessons from our Crisis Communications Playbook

Many of our clients contact us when they’re facing one of two situations: times of crisis or times of transformation—hence our unofficial tagline: “chaos is our brand.” This makes a lot of sense, but too often what we find is that if an organization hesitates to develop best communications practices and a communications strategy early enough, things can go off the rails quickly. 

At the risk of sounding too sales-y and mindful of the many hardships experienced during this time, here are a few of the benefits of using an outside communications firm:

  • An outside set of eyes gives you transaction experience, critical perspective, and unbiased advice when communicating your message to the outside world.
  • An outside firm is in a good position to place your organization in a broader context (i.e., the competitive set, the market, and your financial stakeholders), while you focus on running day-to-day internal operations.
  • An outside firm isn’t influenced by the “groupthink” or silo-ed communications that can be an obstacle to projecting the strongest public image.

Whether or not your organization ultimately decides to enlist the help of a firm like Audacia Strategies during this crisis or the next one, the most important thing you can do is start strategizing ASAP.

2. Think About Who Your Stakeholders Are 

In this moment of uncertainty, you are right to worry about accidentally leaving stakeholders off of your list of communications. One of the first rules of communications is to control the narrative. But if you hesitate to reach out to stakeholders or skimp on the stakeholder analysis, this is precisely the risk you take.

Remember that at its core communications is about storytelling. What is the best story you can tell to a particular set of stakeholders? Suppose the governor in your state has decided your industry is among those allowed to reopen, but you disagree with the reopen policy for your business. Your best bet is to be honest with your employees, customers, and investors. State your case and speak your truth.

Depending on whether you are a publicly or privately held company, stakeholders could include any or all of the following sets:

  • Employees
  • Customers
  • Financial stakeholders: 
    • Public debt holders and ratings agencies
    • Private equity companies and banks
    • Investors or shareholders
  • Community partners
  • Contributors (for non-profit organizations)
  • Business partners and service providers
  • Strategic partners
  • Government regulators and political community (local, state and federal) 
  • Media and industry influencers

3. Understand the Difference Between Marketing and Communications

This is especially important now when best communications practices may require a very light touch. If you think you can “get by” using your internal marketing department to craft crisis communications, you may want to reconsider. 

Marketing and strategic communications are different tools. Whereas marketing primarily focuses on telling the story of how your product or service will help your target customers, strategic communications partners can knit together the entirety of the business story to give investors and other stakeholders a comprehensive picture. As the experts in helping clients weather chaos, we have developed best practices over many transactions, crises, and change events.

Now is the time to ask big picture questions about how your market may respond to this crisis, how resources should be optimally redirected, and how investors, customers and employees should be engaged throughout. This is a great time to consider what has changed for your customers and employees and what you can offer as we begin to feel our way through life post-lockdown.

4. M&A Tips and Tricks

As we hopefully begin to see COVID-19 infection rates peak over the next several weeks and markets start to stabilize, many predict that M&A (mergers and acquisitions) will start to pick up in certain industries. This is, of course, assuming lawmakers on Capitol Hill don’t place a moratorium on big mergers—a conversation we’ll be monitoring closely.

There are still a lot of unknowns here, but if a merger is in your future, we work with corporate development teams, in-house financial teams, lawyers, and investment bankers helping them think through the market and storytelling from an M&A perspective. At its core, M&A is about risk, the ability to manage risk, and telling the story of how the acquisition fits into your broader business strategy and culture.

For example, if you’ve been working on a deal that has been in the preparation stages for months, should you call it off or push forward to completion? One thing is for sure: for companies that have built a healthy balance sheet during the economic boom of the past ten years, declining valuations create opportunities to pursue deals that create long-term value. While we can’t help you decide whether to hold or fold, we can help you communicate your decision.

Finally, we’ll leave you with some pitfalls and opportunities to consider when it comes to best communications practices during a merger or acquisition: 

M&A Pitfalls:

  • Companies that overpay: We have another blog post dedicated to this topic. Suffice it to say, if you overpay for an acquisition, it can create credibility issues with your investors, your Board of Directors, your employees…the list goes on. Negotiations can get emotional quickly but consider that the business strategy will have to support the valuation.
  • Cultural fit failure: We’ve seen it happen: a small start-up firm develops an amazing technology and gets bought by a huge firm looking to prove it’s innovative and “hip.” Then, within a year, all the original start up employees are gone. Avoid this kind of cultural disconnect by having an air-tight integration strategy from the beginning. Make sure you are walking your walk, so you can deliver on what you’re promising. (Pssst! Hot tip: Audacia Strategies has a new service rolling out to help avoid just this problem. Make sure you’re signed up to be among the first to get the details!)

M&A Opportunities:

  • Integration is key: The best M&A success stories are those where the merging leadership teams think about integration all the way along. When companies have a successful communications strategy that includes communicating the big vision well for both internal and external audiences, the proof is in the stakeholders’ response.
  • Customers see opportunities: Ideally, when two companies merge, customers say “this is exactly what I needed.” Rather than seeking out two solutions, for example, the customer gets one-stop-shopping from the new hybrid. It’s your job to help communicate this feeling across your stakeholder groups.
  • Employees see opportunities: And if you can also pull off a merger where employees in both companies see the transformation as good for their own careers, you’ve developed a winning communications strategy. Often employees of the smaller firm may feel anxious about being acquired. But if you can honestly demonstrate opportunities for career mobility, earnings potential, and other benefits of working for a larger company, it will go a long way toward easing transition tensions.

The above is only a sampling of the insights and best communications practices gained from Dan and Katy’s conversation. You can watch and listen to the 30-minute interview in its entirety, here

As everyone keeps saying, this crisis is unprecedented. Still, there is something to be said for working with a team that faces down chaos and keeps walking through the fire. We are here to help you figure out your next step and keep you moving forward. If you want to talk, we’re ready to strategize about your best next steps. 

Photo credit: https://www.123rf.com/profile_deagreez

business communications

The 7 Deadly Sins of Business Communications: How to Stay Out of the Marketing Rat Race

For brands—as with celebrities, politicians, and CEOs—scandals and PR nightmares, like the Airbnb scam that recently came to light, are nearly impossible to hide from today’s connected consumers. As a result, the best approach to business communications is operating with transparency and trust.

This poses a challenge for marketers: how to navigate the trends, meet customers where they are, and ensure the messages being communicated are genuine and in alignment with their brand’s core values. The challenge is all the more difficult when we consider marketing as an all-out arms race where brands compete to showcase their products and services. 

Yes, it’s easy to get caught up in the rat race (with apologies for the mixed metaphor). So, let’s talk about how to stay out of it. The rewards will be waiting for you. When firms make an effort to avoid the seven deadly sins of business communications below, they often find customers do the marketing for them.

1. Pride – Lack of consideration for or understanding of your audience

We all know people who make everything all about themselves. When pride reveals itself in an individual, we distance ourselves from the individual. When pride reveals itself in a business, we tune out completely. 

To avoid the sin of pride in business communications, show your audience that you are listening. Do your research. This is Communications 101. But I get it. When you’re under pressure to respond to a crisis or you need to get your marketing campaign up and running yesterday, it’s tempting to believe that you know best. 

PRO TIP: Remember, the failure to hear your audience could easily spell failure for your firm.

2. Envy – Trying to ‘copy and paste’ another organization’s communications strategy or message because, hey, it worked for them

Whenever we’re developing a communications strategy, it’s natural to draw inspiration from other organizations. But remember that your organization, your stakeholders, and your situation are unique. If you simply borrow from what you see competitors doing, you risk missing out on the authentic connection.

And with all the data available to anyone with a website and a little ingenuity, there’s really no excuse for firms not to attempt some form of targeting and personalization. Of course, you’ll want to use caution here. Personalization can go too far. Make sure you don’t cross the line trading authenticity for ultra-creepy.

PRO TIP: Instead of ‘copy and paste’, try ‘customization and personalization’. 

3. Gluttony – Sometimes too much is just…too much

Strong business communications are direct and to the point. When executives, whether speaking to the internal team or speaking to the public, use extra words, include too many buzzwords, or belabor a point, they take the focus away from the core message. 

PRO TIP: Trim the fat by offering communications coaching or training for those in core leadership positions.

4. Sloth – There are few shortcuts in life (despite the astounding number of promised life “hacks” all over social media)

It’s hard work to step into the shoes of your audience (customers, employees, investors, etc.), to think about what matters to them, and to honestly consider how your message will resonate. But there’s really no getting around doing the hard stuff. 

Also, just because you put a lot of time and effort into building out customer personas, doesn’t mean your ideal customer will stay the same for decades. You need to constantly re-evaluate your message and tweak it for each audience, circumstance, or business goal.

PRO TIP: Good communicators make business communications look easy. But there’s nothing easy about effectively communicating with a variety of audiences.

5. Lust – It’s easy to fall in love with the buzzword of the week, the fancy communications tools, or new social media channels

It’s easy to become enchanted with shiny new things because we’re always looking for ways to take our companies to the next level. Indeed, I’ve referred to some business communications buzzwords (e.g., authenticity, customization, personalization) in this very article. And they can all be useful in some form or fashion, but without the scaffolding of a bigger strategy, they are simply distractions or crutches.

The next time you feel yourself lusting after the latest and greatest, pause and ask yourself: what’s in it for my audience? And, will it help me better engage with my audience? If the answers are ‘nothing’ and ‘no’, you may be leaning on lust to keep from doing the hard work of communicating (see above: Sloth).

PRO TIP: Forget about lust. Fall in love with buzzwords, fancy communications tools, and new social media channels only if you can clearly see how they help you better engage with your audience.

6. Anger – We’ve got a lot of conflict in our communication channels these days

While there is something to be said for playing to the emotions of our audiences to invoke feelings of urgency, anger is not always the most effective way to motivate action or provoke conversation. Generally, anger is more of a monologue than a dialogue and when every communication is perceived as angry, it all sounds the same. Conversation, engagement, and attention work better for long term progress.

Non-profit organizations may especially want to take note here. You can establish a sense of urgency, while opening the door to a path where you can move forward together. It’s important to display your passion for issues and causes you care about, but passion without direction results in lost opportunities. 

PRO TIP: Beware of anger, the sugar high of business communications. It might give you a quick hit, but it will evaporate quickly.

7. Greed – It’s okay to make an ask! But ask yourself who will benefit

It’s perfectly okay and even encouraged for every communication to include a call to action—heck, we all need a good call to action, particularly in business. But when the ask is aligned to the benefit of a few (or perceived to be for the benefit of a few) the conversation falls flat.

Additionally, remember that not every CTA needs to be “buy my stuff.” When you think about generating leads, try thinking in terms of how you can help your customers, rather than how you can get more people to click on your link.

All the SEO and marketing tricks you can buy won’t replace the success that comes from following these three steps:

  • Do what you say you’re going to do
  • When you say you’re going to do it
  • Exactly how you said you would do it

PRO TIP: Business is the ultimate team sport. If the ask doesn’t also provide a “win” or a meaningful trade (of knowledge, services, etc.), then it’s hard to elicit champions for your cause.

As your company grows and you become more successful, business communications will become more complicated. Don’t let success cloud your vision of what’s truly important in your business: your customers and your employees.

If you notice any of these seven deadly sins creeping around your business practices, it might be time for a change. Audacia Strategies is ready to step in. We won’t give you absolution or assign you penance for your sins, but we can put your business communications back on the path to transparency and trust. Let’s Talk!

Photo credit: https://www.canva.com/robertkneschke/

crisis management strategy

Your Crisis Management Strategy When You Need to Walk Through the Fire…and Keep Walking

Your company can’t seem to make money, your executives are constantly in the news for the wrong reasons, and your plane still isn’t flying. Yeah. It’s been a rough few weeks/months/years. 

Recently, I talked about what to do at the onset of a crisis, but what happens if you can’t immediately get a handle on the crisis? What is your crisis management strategy for living through the day-to-day of a crisis that seems to go on forever? The initial response with employees and customers requires getting to the ground truth quickly and relaying as many of the facts as you can, while taking action. 

Some of these same elements continue to be relevant in dealing with the fallout of a long term crisis. But what’s crucial for an effective crisis management strategy is being perceived as a company that is moving forward and not one hoping that maybe after enough time passes, everyone will forgive or at least FORGET. When facing damage from a crisis that just will not die, you need a plan for resolution and rebuilding.

Putting Out the Fire vs. Leading Through the Fire

One of the most challenging tests of a great leader is how they deal with a crisis. To pass this test, it takes two skills: knowing how to put out fires and knowing how to lead through fire. 

Every executive has to deal with surprises and being in business likely means you’ll have to put out some fires eventually. Especially as your company expands, those fires will seem bigger, or at least the potential for fires gets bigger. When it comes to putting out the fire of a PR crisis, the name of the game is regaining control. 

For example, you may remember that back in 2016, after the shooting in San Bernardino, the FBI demanded that Apple build a “backdoor” giving the authorities the ability to circumvent Apple’s data encryption and unlock any iPhone. In response, Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, effectively took control of the story writing this letter: ”A Message to Our Customers.” Tim Cook knows how to put out fires.

However, there are times when you cannot expect to turn things around so quickly or the fires you thought you put out actually continue to smolder. In these cases, leaders must develop a crisis management strategy for continuing to lead even through the crisis. 

Here are some tips for moving forward through the fire: 

1. Continue to focus on transparency and the truth.

While it can be tempting to say whatever you believe will finally put an end to this crisis, resist the urge to “whitewash” the truth. Keep in mind that following your gut and making quick, impulsive decisions is not a valid crisis management strategy and won’t likely get you through this crisis any faster. Impulsive decisions often result in a further loss of power.

Instead, you’ve got to slow down. It will be uncomfortable to tell the truth and only the truth. The media, your employees, your stakeholders, and your customers will likely push for more information. This is difficult to deal with, especially day in and day out. But if you haven’t worked out all the details, do not speculate. Remember that you are engaged in a game of chess here—not rock, paper, scissors. 

2. Work with your team to identify how the firm is preparing to resolve the crisis and (hopefully) prevent another in the future. 

One way to relieve the discomfort of having to stick to the facts, when you don’t have many facts to offer, is to take action so that you have more to talk about. Of course, I’m not suggesting you take any random action that comes to mind. Again, impulsive decisions are almost never the right move.

Instead, work closely with your team to come up with new policies and processes that help your company is ready to move forward. If new training would prevent a similar problem in the future, take steps to implement new training programs as part of your crisis management strategy, for instance. Also, consider what would improve both internal and external communications in the future.

For example, Stanford University recently changed their leave of absence policy for students facing a mental health crisis in the wake of a class action lawsuit alleging discrimination. In her message to students, Vice Provost for Student Affairs, Susie Brubaker-Cole, said, “my colleagues and I have learned from our conversations with you, and our campus community is stronger because of your advocacy.” She went on to say, “together, we are making significant progress, and this new policy is a critical component.”

3. Do NOT stop communicating, either internally or externally. 

No matter what crisis management strategy you ultimately choose, remember to continue communicating as much as possible. Hiding away and hoping you can weather the storm without facing questions from your employees or the public will only cause more problems. 

Instead, keep your leadership visible and ready to answer questions. Have top leaders communicate internally through regular town hall meetings, Zoom meetings, pre-recorded videos, manager talking points, or even just walking through the cafeteria. 

By the way, communicating does not mean you have to take every accusation “on the chin,” but certainly continue to address the issue(s) with employees via your identified channels. Also, be sure to proactively offer appropriate updates to customers, regulators, investors, etc.

Communicate, both internally and externally:

  • What’s the latest 
  • What has changed 
  • What remains the same

Remind your leadership team not to say anything to employees that they wouldn’t say outside the company. This can be controversial, but it’s a reality. Memos leak. Video and audio can be shared. Be transparent and be prepared for what that means inside and outside the company.

4. Focus on sharing your strategy—value proposition. 

This final point is perhaps the most important aspect of any crisis management strategy: go back to the heart and soul of your company wherever possible. It’s a good idea to look at this crisis from a 360-degree angle. Remind your customers why you do what you do and emphasize that you are looking at this issue as only a blip on the radar. 

The point is not to dazzle or distract from the crisis, but to provide context about what your firm does, why, and how you remain committed to that strategy/mission. Ideally, any new processes, policies, actions are in support of continuing to advance the vision of your organization. With surgical precision, you are removing an imperfection and you will be stronger following this recovery. 

Keep this message close at hand, no matter how bleak things look. And always know that every crisis comes to an end eventually. I know that cliches sound so empty when you’re standing in the middle of the chaos and I know you’ve heard them all, but maybe you can take comfort in the words of one great American entrepreneur, Henry Ford, “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” 

If you’re standing in the middle of a crisis right now, don’t go it alone. Find your tribe. Gather your advocates. And build your crisis management team. Fear might leave you feeling paralyzed at the moment, but you can trust the experts at Audacia Strategies. We’ll help you find the right crisis management strategy. Chaos is our brand, so you can bet we know how to walk through the fire. Contact us and let’s get to work!

photo by Authentic Images